This week’s topic may seem a bit funny in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, but it is very relevant any time of the year.
Summer vacation is far away, but there’s reason to think about it ahead of time. A new national study (described here in the NYTimes) found evidence that obesity risks in young children are higher when they are out of school than when they are in school. The fundamental question in debate surrounding obesity and children’s health is this: Does the cause of obesity exist primarily in school or outside of school? Recently, schools have updated their lunch menus, physical education classes ,and nutrition curriculums to reflect a growing awareness of obesity risks in children. However, the findings of this study suggest that even with these improvements, healthy habits can be forgotten when they are not continued outside of school.
Researchers hypothesized that if children's body mass index (BMI) grows the fastest during the school year, factors found in school environments could be a culprit for obesity risks. Conversely, they hypothesized that if BMI grows the fastest during the summer, that would mean the major risk factors could exist outside of school. They examined the weight gain of more than 18,000 children from the time they started kindergarten through when they finished second grade. The authors found that the prevalence of overweight or obese children increased between these years. A more striking finding was that the prevalence of being overweight or obese increased during summer vacation months, but did not increase during the school year.
Intuitively, we can think of a few reasons why summertime might pose some weight control challenges for children. Children may go to sleep later and get less sleep during the summer, which could increase the risk for weight gain, according to another study in the New York Times. During summer breaks, students may also be prone to snacking and sedentary behaviors because recess and physical education classes are not scheduled into their daily routine. Maintaining a healthy weight can be as challenging as maintaining reading and writing skills over the summer. Experts recommend that schools begin conversations with parents well before the school year ends to make plans for students’ diets and physical activity over the summer. These preemptive measures may be especially useful for students who may receive healthier meals at schools, but do not have access to nutritious food in their homes.
Due to the holiday season, November and December is a time when young children spend more time at home with their families. Forming healthy behaviors during shorter breaks from school might help establish healthy habits that will last beyond long summer months.